Journaling the Unsayable

by Sheila Bender

What are my fragments?
Parachutes that open as I fall through the night.

–Olivia Dresher, “Moments & Confessions” from In Pieces

Sheila BenderHow can we overcome the inertia we experience concerning writing about our experiences when we are processing difficult ones? How can we see if writing helps us continue to invest in our lives and the lives of those we love by living authentically and experiencing joy as well as sadness, love as well as sorrow, allowing dark feelings to inform and enrich brighter ones?

Therapists advise us to keep journals. But if we are not already writers and are also busy with work, hobbies, family and friends, it may not be an easy thing to begin doing. We convince ourselves we can cope without writing our feelings or that it is easier to suppress difficult feelings than to have to live them again as we write.  And we fear that we can’t write well enough to honor difficult feelings.

As a poet, I have learned that writing from what has happened, no matter how sad, no matter how troublesome, has great value. In reliving events, we allow whatever our feelings are to be part of our human experience. We forgive ourselves and others, and we mourn what must be mourned.  I have learned to have confidence writing can do that for me because of the notion poet Theodore Roethke offers in his poem, The Waking. In writing, “I learn by going where I have to go.”

I have also over the years learned how regularly poets employ the strategies of lists, letters, and repetition to help them write their experiences, feelings and questions, how they trust that the images that come to them when they observe the world around them contain powerful insights and evocations.

Sitting down to write about something with a strategy in mind allows you to hit the ground running and not ponder where to begin and how to continue (two things that make us feel that writing takes more time than we have for it). Here are three strategies you can use again and again in keeping a journal and writing without worrying about how to write what you have experienced:

1. Lists
Making lists is something we all know how to do and a very useful device in journaling. When you want to write about an event or a person, you can make a list of what you saw, what you heard, what you smelled, tasted and touched, and what you are thinking of now. If you use images and details, you will be recreating the scene or event in reflection. After making your list and being back in the scene you are describing, you will find you can make skillful commentary to help find out what is at the bottom of your heart.

For instance, you might make a list using the topic “What My Five Senses Encountered Yesterday,” which can be a title under which you might include images and details like this:

Smoke from the doorways and windows, black against the blue sky,

The sound of window glass breaking and the no sound of no children playing,

The smell of burnt toast that was actually burnt furniture and clothing,

The heat of a blaze that put the taste of fever in my mouth.

Make your list as long as you’d like, repeating the use of each senses if you wish. Your reflection will likely come organically from the details you have included:

What My Five Senses Encountered Yesterday

Smoke from the doorways and windows, black against the blue sky,

The sound of window glass breaking and the no sound of no children playing,

The smell of burnt toast that was actually furniture and clothing,

The heat of a blaze that put the taste of fever in my mouth.

What I wanted was to watch sunlight through the trees, knowing those who survived and didn’t go on, the smell of the smoke in their clothes, the heat of the flames, wind propelling them forward.

Here are links to two poems on-line that might inspire you to write lists that heal:

Things I Learned Last Week by William Stafford

A List of Praises by Anne Porter

2. Postcards 
One way to write without wondering where to start is to think of where you are as a place you would write to friends, colleagues or family about, whether they are alive or no longer living, are in your current sphere of friendships or from the past, and perhaps even if the friend at this time is a literary character, a pet, or a celebrity you can address about what has happened and how you are feeling and processing the event.

Addressing thoughts and feelings in the short form of postcards to someone you have selected as the right listener helps you say what you might not say otherwise. Once you have identified who you addressing, try this as a way to begin:

Imagine a place you could be writing from or sit by a window.

Tell your addressee where you are writing from.

Tell what you see, hear, taste, touch or smell in the location you are writing from.

Tell how this reminds you of what you experienced recently.

Tell them what is on your mind right now as you are remembering this.

Here are two post cards written by Steve Blair as a writing exercise for healing grief:

Hi Dad,

I’m going to the Jefferson County transfer station today, the dump. I have to recycle plastic, glass, and paper. It would be more fun if you were with me and we could laugh if the wind were just right and we got a whiff of the garbage nearby.

The sun’s out and the heat is warm on the back of my neck.

I’ll do this again in two weeks,


Hi Steve,

I see you’re wearing jeans & flip-flops. You must be having a nice day in the sunshine. Watch out for the bees. I hope you have your EpiPen handy! Have you gone sailing or flying lately?

You sure have a nice house. I love the view.

See you in a couple of weeks,


Writing one postcard or a series of postcards is helpful, whether they are from you or others back to you. A variation of this is to write different imagined outgoing voicemail greeting messages over several days to express your feelings about loss, trauma and other difficult situations.

Here is a link to letter poems by the poet Richard Hugo that are a bit longer than post cards but will inspire you:

Letter to Simic from Boulder (scroll down)

Letter to Synder from Montana

3. Repetition
With repetition we build momentum to say what it is we have been feeling but didn’t yet have words for. After my son died suddenly in a snowboarding accident, I was compelled to call out because of my pain. But to whom or to what? I decided on the trees that he had flown headfirst into when the snow had iced over.

I Call to the Ski Slopes of Breckenridge

                                    After Robert Desnos

by Sheila Bender

I call to the ski slopes of Breckenridge;
I call to the trees on the slopes of Breckenridge;
I call to the snow and the ice hanging in their branches;
I call to the snow on the run and the melted layer of that snow iced over.
I call to my son, to my son in his thermal clothing, to my son,
Twenty-five years old and snow boarding, headed into the trees.

I call to my son to tumble off the board and never reach the trees.
I call to my son not to worry about looking clumsy,
not to worry about finishing his run.
I call to him and I call.

The ski lift stops with its human
cargo, quiet and still and trees begin to lean,
but they are slow, and the snow and the ice on their boughs
fall in clumps to the ground, batter on a spoon I can not see.

My son does not hear me,
but I call over the weeks between then and now
to the hospital and time of death:  3:30 December 28, 2000.
and he does not tumble where I want him to.

I call clear as the moon, single eye I howl beneath, a coyote
licking pebbles from a wound.  I call and I call.  The wound
weeps holy water over my eyelids, hands, knees, feet
that will carry me the rest of my days.

In the snow, I see my sadness crystallize, hear my voice
force follicles in my body to burst along their single seams,
spread seeds, seeds I see in sunlight and my son
everywhere, everywhere I call.

What in the experience you are writing about can you call to? Your callings don’t have to be to one place or one event. You can call to elements, to locations, to workers doing specific activities, to food and to pets, for instance. Let yourself roam in your calling. After you have called and called, you will find something to call to that will allow you to reach beyond the list to assimilate your feelings.


When you come to journaling, remember to let go and let in. Writing is about allowing words and then about listening to where they are taking you. Each journal entry is a fragment of your experience and reflections upon it, each one a savior like Dresher’s “parachute in the night.” The accumulation of entries offers peace and the ability to grow from meeting life’s demands.

About the Author: Sheila Bender founded Writing It Real in 2002 as a way of helping those who want to break their writing out into new forms, revise effectively, and generate more writing. Her many instructional books on writing, published by small presses as well as McGraw-Hill and Writer’s Digest Books, include Creative Writing DeMystified and Writing and Publishing the Personal Essay. A poetry collection, Behind Us the Way Grows Wider, a digital book entitled Sorrow’s Words: Writing Exercises to Heal Grief (available on Kindle and iTunes) and her memoir, A New Theology: Turning to Poetry in a Time of Grief, have garnered attention from Seattle University where she is a 2013 distinguished guest lecturer, Providence Hospice of Seattle Foundation’s 2013 annual fund-raising event, and other programs concerned with writing and spirituality. In Port Townsend, she hosts KPTZ’s radio program, “In Conversation with Sheila Bender: Discussions on Writing and the Writing Life.” Proceeds from her memoir help support the Seth Bender Memorial Camp Scholarship Fund at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center. Sheila is the author of Sorrow’s Words: Writing Exercises To Heal Grief. You may read more of about Sheila’s books HEREVisit her on FacebookWriting It Real and A New Theology: Turning to Poetry in a Time of Grief